The aim of the North Caledonian Football Association is to promote and extend the game of association football in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. These days, the association itself is widely represented across the Highlands & Islands in terms of its membership, with clubs competing from areas across the mainland counties of Inverness, Lochaber, Ross, Sutherland and Caithness, as far north as the Orkney Isles to as far west as the Isle of Lewis. Indeed, it is through their membership of the North Caledonian Football Association, that it has been possible for senior association football to reach many of these areas for the first time in recent years.
But before its wings were fully spread across the North, the NCFA found its beginnings in Inverness.
Organised association football in the Highlands kicked off in 1888, although many towns and clubs had been playing locally arranged matches, using various codes (from association to rugby) for several years before. What changed everything in 1888 was the introduction of two handsome solid silver trophies, one for competition between senior clubs (which became known as the North of Scotland Cup), and another for the “junior” sides - namely the North of Scotland Junior Cup. Originally used back in the 1880s, the “junior” tag was initally inferred as a non-professional altenative to the senior game - and thus when a league was formed for the non-senior clubs in the area, the association took the name of the North of Scotland Junior FA. This new association would go on to operate as a non-league association outside of the confines of the “senior” Scottish Football Association for the next 125 years.
The first cup final was played at Cameron Barracks between the Crusaders and the Crown Strollers - two teams from Inverness, with the result going the way of the former by a goal to nil. Following the cup final, with the new associationformed to govern junior football in the North, a new tradition in the North of Scotland had been given life, and a prize now existed for all its teams to aspire to win. Such was the interest in the cup at this time, it attracted interest from several of the Inverness based senior teams (such as Clachnacuddin, Thistle and Caledonian) who each entered a “2nd XI” team as junior outfits. The association then introduced a league in 1896, principally to accommodate the “2nd XI” teams from the Highland Football League (founded three years prior) which upon its formation mostly consisted of teams from Inverness and the surrounding area. Contrary to the tag it quickly acquired as being a “2nd XI” league, the league title was won in its maiden year by Inverness Celtic, a first eleven side in their own right.
By the end of the First World War, the association had welcomed several new member teams from throughout Inverness-shire and Ross-shire such as Muir of Ord, Beauly, Dingwall Victoria United and Tore United. By 1948, the league was simply known as the North of Scotland “2nd XI” League or “North Reserve League”, having dropped the “junior” tag altogether. As a league competition, the “North Reserve” had come to be recognised as a stand alone association, its junior status having been superceded by the tag of providing a home for several reserve sides of the Highland League.
By the late 1960s, several of the Highland Football League’s ‘A’ teams which had regularly held membership of the North Reserve gradually dropped out, with most finding that it was not financially viable to run “2nd XI” or reserve teams every season. It was at the same time, though, that membership numbers began to rise as clubs from towns and villages throughout Ross and Sutherland joined the senior ranks, with as many as sixteen teams making up the league at one time. By the early 1970s, the league had undergone a significant shift in status and its overall purpose as a league competition - no longer operating as a home for reserve sides. It is around this time that the league truly came into its own in terms of its growth and the creation of several new teams across the North. During this time, the league also welcomed clubs further up the map in Bunillidh Thistle (from Helmsdale) and its first Caithness club in Wick Academy, who would later go on to join the Highland League. The league even extended West with the inclusion of Fort William, prior to their successful application to join the Highland League.
At the 1984 annual general meeting of the North of Scotland 2nd XI Football Association in Bonar Bridge, it was unanimously agreed to change the name of the association to the “North Caledonian Football Association” and the name of the league competition to the “North Caledonian Football League”. The change followed a proposal to rename the league and its association in a bid to to shake the stigma of being a “reserve league” going forward.
Throughout its existence, the North Caledonian Football League has often been characterised by the number of clubs who have used it as a ‘stepping-stone’ to the professional ranks of Scottish football. Perhaps the most historic was the emergence of Ross County who were previously known as Dingwall Victoria United, having left the league in 1929. Also among those to have ‘graduated’ from the North Caledonian League in more recent times are Fort William (in 1985) and Wick Academy (in 1994) who both left to join the Highland Football League.
In 2014, the league gained new found significance as the first senior football association to accept memberships from the Scottish Islands, when Orkney Football Club were accepted into the league. As well as Orkney, Shetland FC and Lewis & Harris FC have also been accepted as guest participants in several of the association’s cup competitions.
During the summer of 2021, the North Caledonian League, along with the junior associations for the North-East/Aberdeenshire (North Region Superleague) and the East/Tayside (Midlands League), were accepted into the Scottish football pyramid structure to form a sixth tier in the North, with the prospect of promotion to the Highland League on the table for clubs from 2021-22 onwards.
The move offered significant validation for the North Caledonian League as a senior competition with a new part to play at the top table of Scottish football discussion.
As of 2022, the association now has thirteen club members, now with representation from the west of Scotland in Fort William, who have returned to the league via the pyramid. This year also, it was confirmed that the winners of the North Caledonian League will secure a place in the opening round of the Scottish Cup, irrespective of license status.